Every year approximately 600, 000 Americans become
paralyzed. Many of them have the capacity to recover, but few
understand clearly how to go about it. This is the story of how I
recovered as a paraplegic, and it is an odyssey that many other
paraplegics can follow, if they are really committed.
In early April of 2007, only days after completing
six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, I drove to town for my last
doctor appointments, feeling relieved that the ordeal was over and
imagining a healthy future. But by night my legs were tingling and
weak, and by morning I lay in shock, imprisoned in a body that was numb.
The next six despairing weeks I spent in hospitals
and at a rehabilitation clinic lying in a bed, propped up in a wheel
chair, or brought to the rehab gym for practical exercises (like moving
from bed to wheelchair) that I could not do. Finally I was sent home
classified as a paraplegic, complete with home hospital bed, wheelchair
and caretaker. I was unable to sit, stand, eat by myself or speak
without slurring. The diagnosis: Myelitis. Lesions pocked my spine
from one end to the other with inflammation of the spine.
The doctors offered little hope. "You might be the
one in 13 thousand who walks again," one said, "but I doubt it."
Another suggested, "Pay attention to the quality of your life. You
probably don't have long to live." They were only trying to get me to
face reality as they saw it: in their experience, apparently, patients
in my condition rarely recovered.
Alone on one of many despairing nights, lying in
the dark hospital room, my mind returned to memories of Dr. Ming Qing
Zhu, an acupuncturist specializing in neurological spinal damage who
years earlier had cured me within six visits of a chronic sciatic
condition that in ten years other health practitioners had failed to
vowed that once I was transferred to the rehab center, I would seek him
Soon after arriving at the center, I plotted the
first of many secret visits to Dr. Zhu's clinic – secret because the
regulations at rehab required patients to remain on the premises. On
the day of my initial appointment for my acupuncture, David, my partner
of 20 years, with the help
two friends, shoved me into our Volvo for the hour-long trip. As none
of us had experience in handling paraplegics, it must have looked like a
circus act as they tried to squeeze me into the car.
Upon arrival at his acupuncture office, Dr. Zhu
placed needles in my scalp and legs, “to activate the flow of energy
from brain to body,” he explained. After the acupuncture treatment, Dr.
Zhu and his colleague, Dr. Moyee Siu, pulled me to my feet via a harness
and began coaxing my body to move in ways that it hadn't been able to
before. While I was a long way from getting up and walking on my own
two feet out his office door, my recovery had begun; Dr. Zhu had
convinced me, more than any conventional professional had been able to
do, that I had the potential to heal. He announced that I might be able
to walk within six months. Ecstatic, I clung to this only ticket to a
future. I would do whatever he said.
"You must exercise all day."
"All day?" I repeated incredulously.
"All day! At least six to eight hours a
day. Ten best."
He looked into my face, and gently spoke in simple
English, "A year. No problem. Live rest of life walking."
Upon being transferred home, I asked friends and
family to come to our house and help. For six weeks guests came and
went. One after another tried with great good will to follow the
exercise regime prescribed by the assigned visiting therapist. I lay on
the large exercise table that David had built for me, my head on three
pillows, staring anxiously at my useless muscles, as I tried to will
them to wake up while my friends stretched and moved my legs and arms.
But their therapy was often inexact and inefficient. They were quickly
exhausted by my constant neediness for personal care, and each soon left
to return home back to the east. For three weeks I vomited every time I
was placed in an upright position for trunk exercises; I still could
not hold a fork nor speak without slurring or skipping words. My hair
was sparse; my body weak. I was a shock to my visitors and a shock to
As my last guest -- my dear college roommate of 40
years earlier and a professor of philosophy -- prepared to return to New
York, I panicked. How could I recover with no one to help me? I could
not even lift my legs off the bed. Back at her home, with tears in her
eyes, she begged a Chinese scholar with whom she was co-editing a book
on Neo-Confucianism to go out to California for several weeks to help
her friend. Being of good physical condition and of good heart, he
And so I met Sean Cheng. Against medical
expectations, under Sean's direction I learned to walk again in six
I had the qualities necessary for a good patient.
Not only was I was also willing to use my savings to support Sean's
help, but I was completely committed to recovery. I had heard stories
of others who had regained their ability to walk and I was determined to
be one of them.
What makes for a good therapist? While licensed
physical therapists are essential to one's recovery, most paraplegics
lack the money to hire a full-time professional and must depend for the
bulk of their healing process on the kindness of a committed partner,
cousin or friend. In my case, I had Sean. Sean had never before
practiced physical therapy, but he had the instincts to become a
successful physical trainer and the insight to create and carry out a
Sean was perceptive and accurate in his assessment
of my condition. As a retired engineer, he approached my disabilities
analytically. He quickly realized that we were in a race against
atrophying muscles, and that our efforts to re-create the neural
pathways to those muscles had to be aggressive enough to counter the
nerves’ lethargy. What he offered me was a ticket on an express train.
Our program used a multi-treatment approach.
Besides completing six hours of intensive exercise every day at home –
three in the morning and three after lunch – we went to a twice-weekly
physical therapy session given by excellent therapists at the outpatient
rehab clinic, and we continued to go to Dr. Zhu’s, took advantage of
chiropractic care and massage, and followed a healthy diet. I even
bought an expensive magnetic resonance mat and modem, equipment that is
used in Europe, to help nurture my repairing nerves. If I had not had a
foot wound, I would have added aquatic therapy to my regime.
There was a time appropriate for each discipline.
Each approach offered us new exercises and new ideas for help. At the
beginning, neurological acupuncture was crucial. Later, Sean urged me
to go as an outpatient to the rehab clinic, which had useful equipment.
At my first rehab session, I was put into a hoist, my legs dangling in
walking position. Clearly, a lift for my morale.
The rehab therapists gave ‘homework assignments,’
exercises that we assiduously followed as presented or modified. We
went to my chiropractor who, besides making spinal adjustments, tested
each muscle for its strength, giving us helpful exercises to develop
Sean was able to accurately assess each 'next
step.' If I was learning to take steps forward fairly well, he might
suggest my learning to step sideways or backwards. Under his guidance,
each new exercise evolved naturally from the last, with no traumatic
strain. Every new activity had to be safe for me; we did not take
risks that might later have taken me months to recover from. We were
almost always in agreement about what exercises to include, or exclude,
in our daily six-hour program. Sometimes it was I who spontaneously
added a new element to our regime. He listened to me and I to him.
Both of us were intensely committed to the recovery
process. Our entire routine was spent in focused productivity. Sean
maintained a challenging pace and rarely slacked off. I rarely
resisted. The process was never comfortable for me. My body always
felt too tight or my nerves too active; my legs alternated from feeling
as if they were burning to feeling like two dead wooden sticks. Often my
torso felt as if it was encased in a tight immovable girdle. I can
truthfully say that not one day did I feel “normal” nor physically
happy. Even so, moving was far more exciting than lying in bed.
Given the repetitive and often seemingly boring
nature of our work (just how much fun can it have been for Sean to plod
behind me, protecting me from a fall as I labored to move forward in my
walker – back and forth, back and forth), I admired Sean for his
consistent and patient endurance.
A natural motivator, Sean kept the boredom at bay.
He got excited about every tiny breakthrough in the healing process and
made sure that I knew what each little achievement was. "Perfect!
Yesterday you only walked across the balcony (or raised your leg or
stood up) five times. Today it was seven!" He made sure to tell David
of my daily improvement, so that David himself began to feel hope that I
would recover. It was truly amazing to hear Sean's excitement. His
enthusiasm -- "You're number one!" he would say during our plodding
exercises -- banished the mild melancholic state I woke to each morning.
When I had to stand in the standing frame for 20 minutes, a task that I
met with boredom and frustration (at that time my legs hated bearing my
weight), Sean appeared with interesting and inspiring readings.
He would read to me in his limited English with his
mispronunciations, and I, a professor by vocation, would correct him.
But his choice of readings was inspirational and unexpected, such as
the blurb on a poster that hung in my art studio about "How To Be an
Artist". When he first arrived, he brought from the studio one of my
watercolor paintings, saying, "This is great!" and my heart lifted a bit
in reliving the joy of painting.
He never pushed me too hard, but let me set new
heights as I felt ready to do so. He knew my limits and possibilities
well. The point was that he fully immersed himself in my experience,
making me feel that we both were successful together. We were as one in
our endeavor, and he was enthusiastic about that too. One of his many
aphorisms was "Enjoy the happiness in the struggling, not only waiting
for or after success."
And Sean was inventive. I live in the country an
hour from town. Our balcony served as our gym. We did not have rehab
equipment available to us, but Sean's philosophy was, "Don't wait.
Innovate. Just do it, NOW!" We did not have time to wait for
insurance approval. One day as I was practicing walking with canes, the
equipment specialist called to say that the leg extensions ordered
months ago for my wheelchair (that I no longer used) had arrived! Both
David and Sean were constantly putting together or taking apart
makeshift equipment for needed exercises. To help me learn to stand up
from a sitting position, Sean, looking for the outcome of the exercise
rather than the attractiveness of the equipment, took apart the $3,000
standing frame so that he could stand directly in front of me as I
lifted off from the angled seat. Early on, David had hammered together
from scrap wood a "tilting board" that more or less mimicked the one
that had been used in the hospital to prepare me for standing in an
upright position. We made our own equipment.
When I needed parallel bars David brought home from
the dump a metal table top, and he and Sean sawed it up to duplicate
parallel bars. Sean took apart the 'raised-arm platform' of a walker
that we had recently purchased but no longer needed and inverted the
platform so it became the "sand walker" that we used to practice walking
on the beach.
When I was ready to practice climbing stairs, Sean
tapped a newspaper around old telephone books to create the first step
-- three inches high. Later he hammered together pieces of wood to make
four separate stepping blocks. One day he built handrails beside the
studio steps so that, using the combination of the low wood stepping
blocks, I could practice going up and down a mini-flight of stairs. To
make the repetition of step climbing more interesting, he announced one
day that four trips up and down the six steps equaled one flight of
stairs and would win me a "star". Of course I wanted to become a
five-star winner, so I willingly climbed more steps. I was a college
professor, yet these simple incentives always awakened in me the
determination to make new efforts. Only someone who has undergone months
of tedious rehabilitative exercise can appreciate this kind of
Sean made every day different: he always found a
way to do something in a new way, a change from previous days. He was
imaginative. I think we both appreciated each other's adventurous
intelligence. And intelligence was needed in keeping up the pace of
recovery. That, and a sense of fun.
It wasn't always fun. Following so intense a
program was highly stressful, and occasionally each of us had to deal
with our emotional baggage. But we were adult enough to work through
the problems and to push on. “Just keep going” could have been our
Sean was never critical. He saw all of my efforts
for what they were: efforts. My caretaker told the rehab therapists
who were awed by our progress, "Sean tells Marjorie what to do but she
does it." To quote Anatole France, "Nine-tenths of learning is
encouragement.” Sean tried to open me to seeing myself in the wider
world – to see that I was not so much an invalid as part of the
adventure of life. He constantly and cheerfully quoted aphorisms and
philosophical dictums. One of his favorites was the Chinese saying:
"Read ten thousand books; walk ten thousand miles." Surely we walked
ten thousand steps together.
Of all the people who every year find themselves
paraplegics, many of them, like me, never dreamed they would find
themselves in such a state – one patient I met had become paralyzed as a
result of a spider bite, another from an auto accident, a third from a
stroke. But newly paralyzed patients shouldn’t wait to find “the
cause,” but focus on the recovery. Such victims will speed their
healing if they can find someone to help them start the demanding daily
exercise program (guided by a professional physical therapist) as early
in their recovery as possible, preferably when they are still in the
hospital, because one's muscles atrophy very quickly. Helpers need to
be cautioned, however, that muscles and tendons are very fragile,
particularly in the weak state of a paralytic, and that great care must
be taken that their body is handled exceedingly accurately, neither too
loosely nor too abruptly. In my experience, Dr. Zhu’s intense
acupuncture was absolutely necessary early in the recovery. Each day is
On November 29 Sean and I made a return visit to
Dr. Zhu. I walked in awkwardly with two canes. They were ecstatic.
Standing for photos I raised my canes in victory. The next day they
invited Sean to work with them!
Sean and I were a team determined to win the battle
against atrophied muscles and damaged nerves. We did. A miracle!